Reviews | What critics of Arlington’s housing diversification are wrong

Emily Hamilton is a Principal Investigator and Director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington.

Arlington is known for its high-rise buildings near subway stations, but on most residential lots in the county, apartments, duplexes, and townhouses are banned altogether. On July 12, Arlington County Council will discuss a proposal that planners have spent years researching and preparing. It would legalize more”middle missingHousing — from townhouses to small eight-unit apartment buildings — in many parts of Arlington in an effort to allow more housing to be built at a lower cost.

Similar debates are taking place in affluent cities and towns across the United States, where a lack of options causes workers and families to live beyond their means, in cramped quarters or on the wrong side of crowded freeways and remote suburbs. Opponents of allowing more moderate housing density – the type that falls between single-family homes and high-rise buildings – argue that it would hurt the environment, raise prices and demand higher taxes. But research shows the naysayers are wrong on all three counts.

Many single-family neighborhoods in Arlington have a beautiful canopy of trees, and some local environmentalists oppose allowing more units where the trees could be removed. A State Law gives localities the authority to require greater tree canopy coverage on lots zoned for fewer units per acre, but proposed new structures in Arlington would not exceed the size of single-family structures. This limits the extent to which adding missing intervening dwellings would reduce tree canopy.

The focus on individual plants, however, misses the forest for the trees. National environmental groups and climate scientists agree that places like Arlington — with subway service, walkable neighborhoods and proximity to area job centers — are the most ecological places to build new housing. Building in Arlington is better for the environment on all margins than its neighborhood walls, creating further pressure to cut down forests on the region’s outskirts and expecting drivers to burn fossil fuels to get there. Additionally, missing intermediate homes typically share walls and roofs and use less energy to heat and cool than single-family homes.

Others argue that allowing more missing mid-builds will increase housing costs, as new construction could replace the county’s oldest and cheapest single-family homes. But basic economic data and real-world evidence show that banning housing construction does not, in fact, improve housing affordability. Houston is the US city that has seen by far the most missing midstream construction in recent decades, in the form of small houses. Partly for this reason, the median real estate price in Houston is lower than the nationwide, despite decades of rapid growth in the local economy and population.

And, as anyone living in Arlington can see, current zoning allows homebuilders to demolish small homes and replace them with some of the most expensive new single-family homes in the area. New construction costs would be lower if duplexes, triplexes and other more affordable options were allowed.

Finally, some critics have raised concerns that the lack of midstream construction and the accompanying population growth will result in higher property tax rates for current Arlington residents. But allowing more housing to be built along existing streets, bike paths, sewers and parks means more people will share and pay for existing infrastructure. For example, the borough of Palisades Park, NJ, allows widespread construction of duplexes while surrounding towns do not, and it has the lowest property tax rates among its neighbors. In the 1990s, Palisades Park policymakers imposed a brief moratorium on new duplexes. Property values ​​plummeted and property tax rates rose, and the moratorium was quickly lifted.

Townhouses, duplexes and other types of middle missing make up the core of the housing stock in many of the country’s oldest and most popular neighborhoods. However, the widespread zoning of single-family homes largely prevents their construction today. Missing intermediate housing is a key part of solving the housing affordability problem in the DC area.

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